Posted by: michaeldaybath | July 14, 2012

Responses to Titian (and Ovid) at the National Gallery

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, National Gallery, London, 11 July – 23 September 2012

Metamorphosis book cover

Book Cover: Metamorphosis: Poems Inspired by Titian (National Gallery, 2012)

While visiting London last week, I had the opportunity to visit the recently opened Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 exhibition at the National Gallery [1]. This Olympic Games-related exhibition is based on responses to three paintings by the Venetian painter Titian (Tiziano Vecellio). All three works take their theme from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and depict Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Two of the paintings – Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto -had belonged until recently to the Duke of Sutherland, despite being on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Scotland since the 1940s (and featuring prominently in the gallery’s The Age of Titian exhibition in 2004 [2]). After the Duke expressed his intention to sell the paintings in 2008, both have been purchased on behalf of the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland (Diana and Actaeon in 2009; Diana and Callisto earlier this year) . The remaining painting, The Death of Actaeon was acquired by the National Gallery in 1972 and was one of the works featured in the gallery’s major Titian exhibition in 2003 [3].

Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto were part of a series of mythological paintings that Titian called poesie; they were both painted for Philip II of Spain between 1556 and 1559. They depict two scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Diana and Callisto depicts the aftermath of Diana’s discovery that her nymph Callisto is pregnant (she had been seduced by Jupiter in the guise of Diana herself). Titian depicts the moment that the suspicious Diana orders Callisto to be stripped naked by her companions. Following the discovery of her pregnancy, Callisto is expelled from Diana’s company and subsequently transformed into a bear by Juno. In Diana and Actaeon, Titian depicts the moment that Actaeon the huntsman mistakenly encounters Diana and her nymphs while they are bathing at a spring. The surprised and angry Diana transforms the young huntsman into a stag, with the consequence that he is chased down by his own hounds and killed. The later incident is recorded in The Death of Actaeon, painted after 1559, where the huntsman – mid transformation – has been already been caught by his dogs while the vengeful goddess (or one of her nymphs) is depicted firing a bow.

These three paintings form the centrepiece of the first room in the National Gallery’s basement galleries, forming a kind of entrance lobby to the other works, which are intended to demonstrate how Old Master paintings and ancient literature can “generate new music, dance, design and poetry” [4].

The Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 exhibition has three main aspects: 1) the responses of three contemporary artists to Titian’s work; 2) three dance performances commissioned by the Royal Ballet, featuring scenery, sets and costume designs from the same artists; 3) poetical responses to Titian (and Ovid) commissioned from fourteen poets.

The artists’ responses to Titian are quite varied. Chris Ofili’s Metamorphoses features a number of very large canvases, bold and colourful with many references to flowing water and some of the other features of Diana’s nymphs. Mark Wallinger’s Diana is more direct, providing exhibition visitors the opportunity to view a (mostly hidden) modern Diana in a purpose-made bathroom in the centre of an exhibition room, putting observers (perhaps?) in the unenviable position of Actaeon (just don’t take your dogs with you!). Conrad Shawcross’s Trophy is perhaps the most bewildering; an industrial robot with a highly lit ‘wand’ adjacent a wooden antler, apparently representing Diana’s intent examination of her ‘trophy’ following the death of Actaeon (I would never have worked this out for myself).

The ballets commissioned by the Royal Ballet involve seven choreographers and feature music composed by Jonathan Dove, Nico Muhly and Mark-Anthony Turnage. They will be first performed at the Royal Opera House on the 14th July 2012 [5]. Diana and Actaeon (choreographers: Liam Scarlett, Will Tuckett and Jonathan Watkins), Machina (Kim Brandstrup and Wayne McGregor), and Tresspass (Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon) will feature set and costume designs made respectively by Ofili, Shawcross and Wallinger. The exhibition contains models and images of the stage settings and costumes, as well as videos featuring rehearsals from all seven choreographers. These can be a little confusing, as the dancers are not consistently in frame (or in focus), but they do emphasise just how much dance performance is the result of co-operation between choreographers and dancers. After the first performances, it is hoped that excerpts from the ballets will be screened in the exhibition cinema.

On the day I visited, the exhibition cinema was showing videos of selected poets reading their commissioned responses to Titian and Ovid. From these, I particularly liked the poems by Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope, Frances Leviston and Christopher Reid (imagining himself in Titian’s studio). Some of them (e.g., Cope and Patience Agbabi) build a story around a particular detail in the paintings and thus direct the reader’s attention back onto Titian’s interpretation of Ovid. Like Wallinger, one of the poems – “Diana and Actaeon” by Tony Harrison – prefers to dwell on the role of the viewer (or the painter), warning visitors to “best beware | of baying bloodhounds in Trafalgar Square.”

In lieu of an exhibition catalogue, the National Gallery is selling a book of the poems with an introduction by its Director, Nicholas Penny [6]. With free entry, the exhibition is well-worth visiting, even if you just want to see the three works by Titian in close proximity.

Update (Jul 18, 2012)

I have had the opportunity to visit the #titian2012 exhibition again and have slightly revised my opinion about Conrad Shawcross’s Trophy. On my first visit, the ‘wand’ was lit up, but the robot itself seemed completely immobile. Yesterday, however, the sculpture seemed to be working as planned, with the ‘wand’ randomly (?) moving around a wooden antler that – if I understood the curation correctly – was made using the same industrial robot.  I’m still not fully convinced by the supposed link with Diana and Actaeon, but the sculpture did make more sense than on my first visit.


[1] Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, National Gallery, London, 11 July – 23 September 2012:

[2] Humfrey, P., “Paintings,” in: Humfrey, P., Clifford, T., Weston-Lewis, A, and Bury, M., The age of Titian: Venetian Renaissance art from Scottish collections (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2004), pp. 157-162.

[3] Jaffé, D., Penny, N., Campbell, C, and Bradley, A., “Catalogue,” in: Titian (London: National Gallery Company, 2003), pp. 166-167.

[4] Nicholas Penny, in: Metamorphosis: poems inspired by Titian (London: National Gallery Company, 2012), p. 7.

[5] Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, London, 14 – 20 July 2012:

[6] Metamorphosis: poems inspired by Titian (London: National Gallery Company, 2012). ISBN 978-1-85709-547-0 See:


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